It was 16 degrees Monday morning in northeast Denver when nearly 100 teachers assembled on the sidewalk outside the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello campus. Wearing winter boots, hats, and mittens, the teachers hoisted signs into the air and chanted at the top of their lungs. “What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Yesterday!” went one refrain. Andrea Leggett, a physical education teacher at Montbello and one of the rally’s leaders, stood in the middle of the pack with a megaphone as her colleagues marched in a circle around her. “You left us no choice! You made us use our teacher voice!” she yelled, urging the crowd into a chorus.

It was just after 7 a.m. and the picket line was a frenzy as students arrived for school, the first day in 25 years in which Denver Public Schools’ teachers were on strike. As cars passed, drivers honked their horns and gave thumbs up in solidarity with the teachers. Some drivers, recognizing an already chaotic atmosphere, burned donuts into the asphalt before peeling out down the street. Several parents left their cars and stood with the teachers. At least one student who had gone into the school came back outside after realizing there was no learning to be done there. The scene Monday morning was as raucous as it was frigid, and until the strike ends, things look to continue this way.

(Read more about why Denver teachers voted to strike.)

This strike has been 15 months in the making. Officials from DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) have been at the bargaining table on and off in an effort to renegotiate the ProComp (professional compensation) system that DPS uses to give teachers bonuses and financial incentives. It’s a system teachers say is broken, and they want a new structure with higher base salaries and less unpredictability. However, after last-ditch negotiations broke down over the weekend, 2,631 Denver teachers—about 52 percent according to DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova—went on strike Monday morning, creating chaos at schools across the city. This number is contradicted by DCTA spokesperson Mike Wetzel who wrote in an email on Monday afternoon that 3,769 teachers and special service providers were counted at picket lines throughout the district, via headcounts and sign-in sheets.

Jayden Tolson, a high school junior at Montbello, went into school early Monday morning. But after seeing the high school students sequestered to the library and the middle school students clustered in the gymnasium, with hardly any instruction going on, he ultimately walked out and stood along the picket line with his mother, Shaunte Timmons, where they both stayed to support the teachers. “There’s no reason for me to be in school today,” Tolson says.

At other schools in the district, the situation was reportedly much worse. For instance, a video was provided to the Denver Post Monday morning showing East High School students blasting music, chanting, and running through the halls. Students are said to have streamed out of the school shortly after, though it’s unclear whether or not they were instructed to do so.

As was expected, some parents elected to keep their children home from school. While no official attendance numbers have been released, Cordova said in a press conference on Monday morning that bus ridership was down by half, while just over 60 percent of the usual number of breakfasts were served at schools throughout the district.

Though things were tame in northeast Denver, teachers at the Montbello picket line were encouraged by the size of their rally and the amount of community support they’ve received. While they’re hopeful the strike will compel DPS to increase salaries and do away with ProComp, few teachers are optimistic that the strike will end anytime soon. “It’s been 15 months of being ignored,” says Cory Montreuil, an 11th and 12th grade math teacher and the high school’s wrestling coach. “We want something that is right, and we want it for our kids.”

Montreuil says one of the reasons he became a teacher is that he remembers having consistent mentors throughout his educational upbringing—teachers who had been in the same schools for decades. But in the DPS system that type of stability is increasingly rare. DPS is seeing high turnover because teachers are making less money than their counterparts in other districts, and therefore many teachers choose to leave Denver’s system and work elsewhere. That cycle, brought on by unfair wages, Montreuil says, is ultimately hurting Denver students. “Inconsistency hurts our kids,” he says. “I’ve seen people leave DPS. I’ve seen people leave the state. We need to incentivize teachers to stay.”

Teachers are ready to hold the picket line indefinitely, but the strike could end soon if the bargaining session scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday morning is fruitful. During the last round of negotiations, DPS officials stayed firm on offering bonuses, especially for teachers who work in low-income schools. The union wants these bonuses eliminated and that money to be rolled into base salaries. It remains to be seen what the district will propose on Tuesday, but for at least one more day, the strike will go on.

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.